Archive for October, 2007

There : Halloween

October 31, 2007 Leave a comment

Well, aside from my my birthday, I’ve passed my first major US holiday here: Halloween. Koreans don’t celebrate Halloween. They don’t really have an analog to it, either. But because there is an International Business class that deals almost exclusively with students hoping to study in the US, we had a Halloween party today.

We did a costume contest, which was fun, and exciting for them. We paraded around campus, and even met with the president. Many people didn’t know how to react. We even had a “Spartan” who was shirtless, which is pretty hardcore for Korea (something akin to walking around in your underwear).

Then we did bobbing for apples. Many of the girls didn’t want to get their faces wet, but everyone succeeded in the end.

Then we had a pumpkin carving contest. Korean “pumpkins” are small and squat, but we did find some American-ish pumpkins and it was still lots of fun. In the end, I think the pictures speak the loudest.

Halloween 1
Professor Barry and Alex
Gibson and Esther
Chen YuHey
Jared Kills Sophia
Esther Again
Professor Vincent
The Exodus
President Chun
Harrassing around Campus

Categories: Being There

There : Learning the Language

October 26, 2007 Leave a comment

Korean is difficult for English speakers. A lot of the sounds are just strange. There are aspirated sounds, which are the sounds we make when we are angry. These sounds are quite common in all Korean language, and tend to make Koreans sounds angrier than they are. Additionally, as a laid back English speaker, this means I mispronounce them most of the time. There are plenty of sounds they don’t have, like “Th”, “St”, “R”, “V”, “X”, “Z”, and their “s” sound is often a “sh” sound. They get revenge by adding a sound which is basically the noise you make when someone punches you in the stomach (“uh” 으), which is made by expelling air with your teeth mashed together. This is similar to Japanese, in that they add the “uh” sound to the end of many loan words (for example, my friend Jared’s name in Korean is phonetically “Jay-lu-duh”, with an undeniable “uh” at the end.) because they don’t have a way to deal with more than a certain number of sounds in a syllable block, or with blocks that don’t have vowels. There are seemingly infinitely many hidden pronunciation rules which take the otherwise straight forward alphabet system and make it as confusing as English.

The grammar is definitely confusing. It is based on Subject, Object, Verb (as opposed to English’s Subject, Verb, Object). Of course, it’s not that simple. English is only sometimes SVO, and Korean is only sometimes SOV. The Subject and Object are positionally variable. There is a particle that goes at the end of a word to make it an object, and one to make it a subject, and their order doesn’t matter beyond that. Additionally, Verbs, Adverbs and Adjectives are all the same thing: verbs. This is largely because they don’t deal with “be” verbs (a small mercy). Many times words like “I”, “She”, “Me” can be omitted, making for some very short, legitimate sentences. Because this is good and simple, they rectify this by having many, many levels of language, which require, at minimum, verbs to be conjugated differently. Basically, you can’t talk to you pastor using the same verbs as your friend, or your teacher, or someone younger than you. There are also particles of respect for the equivalent of “to”, and situations where you can’t use the respectful particles without being vaguely insulting.

That’s not to say that I’m not learning. I’ve hit a point where I feel like I’ve learned more in the last few weeks than the prior weeks combined. It’s simply that the gulf between our languages is imposing. It makes me respect those Koreans who can speak English. It’s not exactly apples to apples, because Koreans study English from middle school, and I’ve been studying Korean for a few months academically. But still, make no mistake, English is messed up, too.

Our system of vowels is confusing. Koreans have explicit vowels, and while they are occasionally unwieldy (you need 2 syllables to make the Hard “I” sound), they are much better for specifically showing what vowel sound to make. So much so that I regularly mess up the “Ah” and “Uh” sounds because there isn’t that much difference, functionally, in English. Our Ph’s make a “F” sound. We use French words, which is a major pain to explain (Why is Buffet spelled with a “t”? Why is coquette spelled with an “e”?). Our Latin and Greek Prefixes and Suffixes are confusing, because why is something that is inflammable on fire, but I can’t convince of something inconceivable? Why can’t something be in/dis-delicious? Why do we share some letters when we pronounce some syllables and not others (and if you don’t know what I mean, try to pay attention to how you really pronounce words. Many syllables have joint custody of some, but not all, consonants). How do you explain the vocabulary for a language that borrows from Spanish, Greek, Latin, French, German, Native American and anything else it can get it’s hands on. How do you explain English grammar when most English speakers never consciously and certainly don’t consistently apply it in day to day life? I’ve got few arguably correct (and undoubtedly many clearly incorrect) grammatical errors in this post, alone. But you can still understand (most of) it.

That said, my time so far in Korea is still the most rewarding time of my life, and I hope to continue it. I also hope I can learn more Korean. They do an outstanding job of meeting me more than half way, and I feel bad for not being any better than I am.

Categories: Being There

Dr. Fish

October 18, 2007 1 comment

So I went to a coffee shop with Grace yesterday. But it was no ordinary coffee shop. It was Tree Cafe.
Aside from the standard coffee, tea and bread, there was Dr. Fish. What is Dr. Fish, you ask? Dr. Fish is the amazing process, where in one lets hundreds of minnows accost their feet. It’s even weirder than it sounds.

Basically, for $10, the two of us got 15 minutes to put our feet in a trough full of tiny fish. The fish immediately started pecking on you. There are hundreds of them, and their tiny mouths feel undeniably strange. Some of them pinch a lot. If you’re even slightly ticklish, you’ll be laughing constantly. They swarm around and get into every little angle they can. It’s one of those experiences you can’t get in Kansas; certainly not when it’s named “Dr. Fish”.

The after effect was that our feet tingled for a few hours and still feel soft. Not exactly a cure for leprosy, but a lot of fun.

Categories: Being There

There : Glasses and the Importance of Friends

October 12, 2007 Leave a comment

I got new glasses this week. If you wear glasses, and you go to Korea, you should get new glasses. Even if you don’t need new glasses. Because it’s just that easy.

My friend Grace went with me, which helped tremendously. She did pretty much all the talking for me. First they scanned my current glasses, one lens at a time on this laser machine. Then I sat down at a little scope machine and they cycled through settings (silently) and could magically tell when things were in focus (I don’t say anything). Then they said that the prescription was the same as my old glasses (fine). I picked out a frame (with the assistance of a designated Girl, AKA someone with fashion sense) and paid, and was told to come back in about an hour. My glasses were done, exam to fitting, in less than an hour. The man even went to lengths to make sure they fit well, using a plastic forming deal to bend the frames. This was better service than you get in a week in Kansas. Grand total? $50 for everything. EVERYTHING. Even the exam. They even gave me a carrying case and lens clothes, which aren’t amazing, but it shows they didn’t skimp on anything. I have no idea how much contacts cost here, but if you wear glasses, pick up more, even if it’s just to have a spare.

This incident is another good example of how important it is to have friends. Not that it’s unimportant in your home country, but it’s infinitely more important in the tangible sense abroad. Grace has been really good about not just helping me explore Korean culture, but doing the more necessary things that are difficult to do solo, without language experience. It’s a fine line between helping out and babying someone through everything, but I think it’s going well on my end, and I hope (and check regularly) that I’m not being a burden on her and my other friends.

Speaking of other friends, having a native friend like Jared is another jewel in the “if you can, do” crown. It is so relieving to be able to discuss things with someone from a similar background. It could easily seem that you’re going crazy with some issues, and talking about them with someone who was once (or still is) as mystified about it as you is wonderfully therapeutic. Additionally, Jared has the added experience that is useful in cautioning me towards or away from certain things. Never fail to consider advice, even advice you know isn’t completely correct, when you are faced with a new situation. It shouldn’t make your decisions for you, but it should at least give you insight. Another thing that is nice about having another foreign-native friend is the fact that you can talk normally, and even use references, if even for a short while. There are plenty of English meetings and English bars and such you can go to if you’re nowhere near another Weagook in your normal day.

There is also the friendship I get at church, which is invaluable. There is also the friendship of my roommates, which offer me, individually, a total native perspective and a different brand of outsider perspective. Things are different for a Cambodian student in Korea than an American, and it’s interesting to see what they see and experience different than I. The native experience is obvious in it’s worth, and is tempered with the fact that he’s studied abroad in England.

The people are easily the best part of being in Korea, for me. It’s the relationships that make it possible for me to exist here, and even more, to be happy. The best thing you can do is form good friendships with others when you’re abroad (of course, use caution, some people will try to use you, some people are polite but don’t care, it’s just like anywhere else). And for those at home, remember that the relationships you form with foreigners are just as important to them as theirs are to me, here.

Categories: Being There, Etcetera

There : Most Surprising Thing

October 8, 2007 Leave a comment

A friend asked me what the most surprising thing about Korea was.

The question of what has surprised me most is kind of difficult to answer.

What was the most different than what I expected: Koreans drink more Coffee than most Americans. I cam expecting to drink lots of tea, but there is far more coffee going around. It’s also usually a lot more expensive than America. If I ask for black tea, I get weird stares. Red tea (which is black tea), I can only get a coffee shops. Even green tea is not all that common in restaurants and people’s homes.

What was the most unexpected thing: Probably the cumulation of a lot of smaller cultural things. For instance, I had this Saturday off; there was nothing scheduled for me to do. As I was walking back from lunch, the head of the International Students Dept stopped me and asked me to teach some middle schoolers for an hour. 5 hours later I was done. The program I was teaching for was a really big deal, and they needed me right away. What would they have done if I didn’t walk by? Thinks are kind of loose and last second here. They have totally different ideas about punctuality, planning ahead and sticking to plans. On the other hand, it’s pretty much never boring.

What was the most pleasant/exciting thing: Probably just that Koreans are very friendly. I’d met quite a few in church, back in Kansas. To a degree I expected that their being Christians, and being in America, was part of why they were so accepting. But they have generally be great. They are, as a people, far more supportive of me than the average American would be to a Korean in America who spoke little to no English. There is still a definite wall of Them and Not Them, but some of that is cultural, some of it is linguistic and some of it is familiarity.

What was the most unpleasantly surprising thing: Shampoo costs $8-9 for the bargain brand stuff. A bar of soap starts at $1 each. Face wash is $14 a squeeze tube.

Categories: Being There